Category: Economy

Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision

by Josh Feit

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.

The $155,000 save is on track to be part of  next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”

That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)

The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.

Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision”

Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department

By Erica C. Barnett

The cessation of open warfare between Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council over the 2021 budget doesn’t make for the most dramatic headlines (see above), but the detente between the two feuding branches could mean a budget compromise that won’t end in another spate of open warfare.

The council’s budget proposal makes dramatic cuts to Durkan’s proposal to designate $100 million in funding “for BIPOC communities,” fulfills the city’s 2019 promise to invest proceeds from the the sale of publicly owned land in South Lake Union into housing and anti-displacement programs, and cuts the size of the police department by about 20 percent, with a commitment to spend the savings from those reductions on community safety projects through a participatory budgeting process, which the budget also funds.

On Monday, Durkan issued a statement praising the council’s budget for “continuing that historic $100 million for communities through slightly different community-led processes.” This was a departure from Durkan’s previous position on the council’s spending priorities. Last month, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions about the racial equity implications of Durkan’s $100 million plan by suggesting that the council’s own spending proposals, including plans for COVID relief, participatory budgeting, and police department cuts, had not gone through a proper vetting to see if they truly benefited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities.

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During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked about this seeming contradiction. Durkan responded that while she hasn’t read all of the council’s budget amendments, “my read on it is that they are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” Durkan said she was “disappointed” that the council wasn’t spending even more on BIPOC added, given a new revenue forecast that adds more than $32 million to the 2021 budget.

“I’m very hopeful that when we come out of this, and when there’s a final budget, that we actually have a path forward that makes real on the commitment that we will invest generational investments in the city of Seattle” over the next 10 years, she said.

The council’s proposal is still a recessionary budget. Instead of massive spending increases, it reprioritizes limited dollars, in ways that advocates for sweeping, immediate change may find frustrating. But it also puts significant leverage in the hands of the community groups leading the process of participatory budgeting, and promises significant funding for that process.

“They are also committing $100 million to community investments, and I am really heartened that they have followed my lead to do so.” — Mayor Jenny Durkan, referring to the city council

In reporting on the council’s previous budget discussions, I’ve talked about many individual, one-off budget changes council members are proposing—from an analysis of “transportation impact fees” levied on new housing to funding for energy efficiency audits to the restoration of the city’s nightlife advisor position. This post will look at a few high-takes, big-ticket spending areas, including investment in community-led alternatives to police,

Major cuts to the mayor’s Equitable Communities Initiative

As I mentioned, the council’s budget chops $70 million from the mayor’s $100 million fund to pay for future investments in BIPOC communities. That money would be redistributed as follows:

• Durkan’s budget “abandoned”—and yes, that’s the technical term—$30 million that she promised last year for affordable housing and efforts to prevent displacement in gentrifying areas. The money came from the sale of the Mercer Megablock project, and was key to getting anti-displacement groups like Puget Sound Sage not to protest the sale. The council’s budget restores this money to its original purpose.

• The Human Services Department would get $10 million to distribute to community organizations “to increase public safety through technical support, capacity building, and expansion of capacity.” The council allocated this money in 2020, but the city didn’t spend it, and Durkan zeroed it out in her proposed budget.

• Another $18 million would go toward the participatory budgeting project that the council began funding in 2020, which I’ll discuss separately in a minute.

• The remaining $12 million or so would replenish the city’s emergency reserve fund, which Durkan’s budget almost zeroed out (see graph above); restore funding for a restorative pilot program in schools; and restore funding for community-based alternatives to policing, among other smaller-ticket items.

As for the $30 million that remains out of the mayor’s initial $100 million: That money would still get allocated, through a process that would still include the mayor-appointed Equitable Communities task force, but only after the city council approves the spending plan.

Participatory budgeting

A total of $30 million, including the aforementioned $18 million, would fund community safety projects chosen through a participatory budgeting process; these projects would replace some functions (such as responding to crisis calls) that are currently performed by SPD. Continue reading “Compromise City Budget Avoids Major Cuts, Including to Police Department”

Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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If you enjoy the work we do here at PubliCola, please help us KEEP IT GOING by donating a few bucks a month or making a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by check at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context”

Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant

The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.

We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.

But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.

The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.

When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.

Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.

The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)

Continue reading “Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Keep Moving Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

Mayor’s 2020 Budget Would Reallocate JumpStart, Uber Taxes to Pay for BIPOC Investments To Be Determined by New Task Force

Screen shot from internal City of Seattle presentation obtained by PubliCola.

UPDATE: Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the mayor plans to use both JumpStart (payroll) tax revenues, which are currently earmarked for housing, people experiencing homelessness, and small businesses, and money from the Transportation Network Companies (Uber/Lyft) tax to help pay for her $100 million “new investment” in BIPOC communities. The details of that spending would be hammered out by a task force whose members Durkan will announce next week. (More information in original story, below.)

The TNC tax is currently earmarked for affordable housing near transit and the Center City Streetcar. Using TNC revenues to get to the $100 million goal could mean abandoning the troubled downtown streetcar project.

Earlier this year, the city council passed the JumpStart tax—a graduated payroll tax on high-income workers’ earnings. Durkan, who opposed the tax, nonetheless only vetoed the council’s JumpStart spending plan, letting the tax itself become law without her signature. (The council overrode the veto).

It was an odd move that many observers questioned at the time. However, if Durkan was planning to use the tax revenues to pay for her July commitment, which she made at the height of clashes between protesters and Seattle police, the mayor’s decision to preserve the tax but try to undo the spending plan makes sense. 

But it will have consequences. Under the council’s plan, payroll tax revenues would be used in the short term to fund rent relief, non-congregate shelter beds, immigrant and refugee relief programs,grocery vouchers, and direct assistance to child care centers and other small businesses. In the long term, the tax is supposed to provide $214 million a year for low-income and affordable housing, equitable development, small business support, and Green New Deal projects.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

The council, which is just coming off a bruising battle over the 2020 rebalancing package, will have to decide now whether they want to fight Durkan’s plan to allocate $100 million to a list of projects that won’t be determined until her task force comes up with spending priorities; or to give in and abandon some or all of the JumpStart spending plan they adopted in July.

If they fight, the mayor will be able to accuse the council of “not listening to community” because their spending plan didn’t involve the kind of lengthy community process Durkan has proposed. If they don’t, community groups that worked to secure the funding in that plan, including groups that advocated for months for the Green New Deal spending plan, could lose out.

Overall, according to PubliCola’s reporting, Durkan’s budget plan would require between 75 and 80 outright layoffs, representing about $7 million in city spending. The mayor will present her budget to the council next Tuesday at 1pm.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Original story follows.

As PubliCola reported yesterday, in advance of today’s announcement, Mayor Jenny Durkan is convening a new “Equitable Investment Task Force” as part of a “Reimagining Seattle” process that will begin discussions to “realign” the city’s spending  for a post-COVID recovery. The mayor’s announcement, made in an op/ed in the South Seattle Emerald, does not provide many details about her “Equitable Communities Initiative” or the makeup of the task force, but does indicate that this will be a multi-year process, starting with the 2021 budget she’ll propose next Tuesday and continuing with an already planned supplemental budget next spring.

As we noted on Twitter yesterday, PubliCola has obtained additional details that shed more light on the mayor’s plans, which also involve numerous internal “work groups” (distinct from the external task force) and more than 30 city staff, most of them from the city budget office or the mayor’s office.

In an internal PowerPoint presentation titled “Reimagining Seattle As We Know It,” Durkan’s office laid out a plan that that includes new internal city of Seattle “work groups” and an Equitable Investment Task Force with various committees and a paid facilitator, which will “interface” with, and get technical assistance from, the city by way of the new work groups. The mayor’s office will serve as the liaison between all these different groups, and a still-to-be-hired Director of Re=covery and Equitable Investment will head up the whole effort.

The mayor has been criticized in the past for appointing task forces to discuss urgent problems in the past instead of taking quick and decisive action. Past task forces have included groups that discussed homelessness (One Table), zoning in industrial areas (the Industrial and Maritime Strategy Council), and business (the Small Business Advisory Council), among others.

This purpose of this task force is, in part, to discuss how to spend the $100 million the mayor has pledged in “new spending” on BIPOC communities in her 2021 budget, which her office will present to the city council on Tuesday.

One likely source of these revenues will be the JumpStart tax, which is intended to help individuals and businesses recover from the COVID-related economic downturn next year, to cover some of the $100 million. Earlier this year, Durkan vetoed the spending plan for the tax, but not the tax plan itself (the council overrode the veto).

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who proposed the JumpStart plan, told PubliCola, “JumpStart funding for 2021 was supposed to lessen the austerity cuts that were expected to core government services, much of which serves BIPOC communities. We cannot take expected JumpStart revenue to make good on a promise [Durkan] couldn’t keep.”

According to the city’s internal presentation, the task force—whose members the mayor’s office has not yet identified—will have four co-chairs, and the whole effort will be headed up by the mayor’s new Director of Recovery and Equitable Investment, who has not been hired yet (the job posting went up in early September). PubliCola hears it’s been a challenge to find someone to fill the cabinet-level position, which has a pay range of $120,000 to $180,000.

 

Council Narrowly Overrides Mayor’s Veto of COVID-19 Relief Bill

District 7 council member Andrew Lewis voted to uphold Mayor Durkan’s veto

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council voted to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of legislation to provide $86 million in immediate economic relief to renters, small businesses, people experiencing homelessness, and other people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, then voted to swap the original bill for a scaled-back version that will spend $57 million instead.

The legislation Durkan vetoed and the replacement ordinance would authorize the use of two city reserve funds to pay for COVID relief, and replenish those funds using proceeds from the JumpStart payroll tax, which kicks in next year. “We are just using a portion of the dollars that we’re collecting, with a certainty that we will be able to replenish the dollars,” council member Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the original legislation, said.

Durkan’s office said the mayor was still “evaluating” the legislation and had not decided yet whether she would veto this bill as well.

The council decided to reduce the size of the relief package, which will be funded by drawing down two city reserve funds, in recognition of a City Budget Office forecast released Monday that increased the size of this year’s projected shortfall by $26 million. Only Kshama Sawant voted against the new relief package, calling it an “austerity” bill that amounted to a huge “budget cut.”

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The veto override needed six votes to pass. One potential “no” vote, Debora Juarez, is excused from council all this week; she also missed Monday’s vote to adopt a midyear budget that included cuts to the Seattle Police Department. Andrew Lewis and Alex Pedersen both voted to sustain the mayor’s veto.

Pedersen said he was motivated, in part, by the concern that the city would be forced to lay off workers next year if the council spends too much money now. Lewis said he believed that the only way to “make a deal” with Durkan would be to uphold her veto and spend the next week and a half working “collaboratively” to come up with a proposal the mayor would be willing to support.

“The mayor, from her position, has made clear that she is not going to spend this money,” Lewis said. “She is going to continue to push back until there is a broader accommodation.” The “broader accommodation” Lewis referred to was apparently contingent on the council either letting the mayor’s veto stand without a vote and passing new legislation (which would mean no further discussion of the veto or the original bill) or upholding the mayor’s veto, as several council members made clear in their comments.

Council president Lorena González, for example, said she had spent hours on the phone with the mayor and her staff over the past week trying to come up with a compromise that Durkan would accept, but that Durkan was hung up on making sure that her veto stood. “Unfortunately, we were not able to come up with an agreement because… there was an insistence on the sustainment of the veto before we could agree to a number,” González said. The money, in other words, wasn’t the main issue—the veto was.

In a statement, Durkan said that in “the spirit of the collaboration, I proposed creating a new bill and an agreed spending and priorities plan to ensure the City could actually implement tens of millions of additional assistance in 2020 and 2021, while continuing to have resources to address our growing budget gap and any emergencies. Council chose to reject that proposal and take a different path.”]

Even if she doesn’t veto the legislation, Durkan is under no obligation to actually spend the money the council has allocated. (We covered this fact, and the history of council-mayor budget cooperation, in a recent post about the council’s efforts to eliminate the Navigation Team.)

The legislation recognizes this fact, in a roundabout way, in a new paragraph acknowledging that “direct relief to the community may take time and could result in not expending the full $57 million in 2020. If the full amount is  not expended in 2020, the Council is committed to working with the Executive to continue funding these critical COVID-19 relief programs in 2021 and to address newly identified 2020 revenue shortfalls.”

Council Takes a Small Bite Out of Police Budget As New Forecast Predicts Even Bigger Shortfall

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates for an immediate 50 percent cut to the Seattle Police Department’s budget may have walked away unsatisfied Monday evening, when the city council passed a midyear budget package that lopped just 7 percent off SPD’s remaining 2020 budget. But the council majority left no question that they consider the short-term cuts a down payment on a more substantive proposal next year—one that, importantly, has a shot of making it through labor negotiations with the powerful police officers’ union.

The budget would eliminate the equivalent of 100 full-time officers through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council made requests for specific layoffs—zeroing in, for example, on the Navigation Team, the mounted patrol, and the sworn portion of SPD’s public affairs office—but they have no power to actually dictate how the police department spends it budget, which is why no “defund the police” proposal (short of eliminating the department altogether) actually requires the chief to spend her budget in the way the council wants.

As a result, the rhetoric around the council’s cuts has often been far more heated than the modest changes suggest.

Council member Kshama Sawant, who cast the lone “no” vote against the rebalancing package (Debora Juarez was absent), accused her colleagues of passing an “austerity budget” that “fails working people” because it did not include her version of the so-called “Amazon” (payroll) tax. (Budget chair Teresa Mosqueda’s retort: “No one is siding with Jeff Bezos.”)

Mayor Durkan, who has held numerous press conferences to denounce the council majority’s more modest plan, issued a statement after the vote saying it was “unfortunate Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process to work with the Mayor, Chief Best, and community members to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for – not just acknowledging – the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming” SPD.

The package of bills adopted Monday would also:

• Express a commitment to creating a new a civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention by the end of next year—a proposal Sawant mocked as “resolution to hope to study defunding the police”;

• Start the process of civilianizing the 911 system by putting a civilian director and deputy director in charge of the 911 call center (which is already run by non-sworn SPD personnel);

• Reallocate funding that Durkan originally allocated for an expansion of probation to community groups working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations;

• Cut the salaries of SPD’s command staff (with the exception of Best, who would see her $294,000 salary reduced by less than $20,000);

Allocate $1.7 million to non-congregate shelter, through a proviso that would prohibit Durkan’s Human Services Department from spending the money on any other purpose

• Empower the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to enroll new clients into its Co-LEAD program, which has been held up by the executive branch for months, without SPD participation; and

• Earmark $17 million for community organizations working to create new systems of community safety outside the police department.

• Move millions of dollars from levy funds that were supposed to pay to expand programs or create new ones to pay for the ongoing operations of city departments, such as the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Department of Education and Early Learning;

The changes adopted Monday amend Mayor Durkan’s original budget-balancing proposal, which relied heavily on a hiring freeze, emergency funds, federal grants, and levy dollars that had been allocated for other purposes to close an anticipated shortfall of more than $200 million. On Monday morning, just minutes before the weekly council briefing meeting, the mayor’s office distributed a memo from CBO director Ben Noble projecting an additional revenue shortfall of $26 million this year alone.

Near the end of almost eight straight hours of budget discussions, council member Lisa Herbold said she wanted to state for the record that “we as a council and the mayor’s office are in a really unique position to seize upon a moment in the city and in this country” by taking seriously community demands to redefine public safety and defund the police. “I am hopeful that we are more aligned in our desire to do that than it has appeared in the last two weeks.”

That hope seems optimistic. In adopting the midyear budget Monday, the council rejected Durkan’s proposal to discard the historical practice of two-year budgeting, demanded a report that would provide more transparency into how SPD is actually spending its budget, and prepared to overturn Durkan’s veto of a COVID relief plan that would temporarily drain the city’s emergency reserves until they can be replenished with funds from the new payroll tax that goes into effect in 2022. The council will start the whole process over again next month, when the mayor proposes her 2021 budget.

Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council

It’s probably another sign of the frayed relationship between most members of the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan that the big meta-budget dispute playing out in council chambers right now is how much the mayor and her budget office know about the details of midyear cuts the mayor is proposing and how much they’re telling the council, which has to approve a final package of midyear budget cuts based on more than a dozen pieces of legislation the mayor sent them earlier this month.

Yes, how much to cut the police department (and whether the mayor’s proposed “cuts,” for this year and next, are meaningful or merely cosmetic) remains the most pressing single budget issue. But the cuts the city has to make this year—and then replicat and expand in 2021—are largely in other departments that aren’t currently in the headlines, and the debate over the mayor’s proposals is also a debate about discretion and how much of the budget is actually on the table for the council to tinker with.

On Thursday morning, city council central staff director Kirsten Arestad said central staff will develop a new budget tool—essentially, a balancing worksheet—that will show exactly what is in the mayor’s midyear budget-cutting package, including “administrative cuts” the mayor has made that are not reflected in the legislation she sent to the council. The tool will also take a baseline forecast (the June revenue forecast, which added another $11.4 million deficit to the May forecast on which Durkan’s balancing packaged is based) and use it as the basis of the balancing package. The worksheet will also indicate more clearly the gap between revenues (including COVID-related federal funding) and expenditures (including unanticipated costs related to the pandemic), Arestad said.

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One reason all this extra work is necessary, according to Arestad, is because not all of the cuts Durkan made to the budget show up in the legislation she sent the council, which only includes cuts the council has to act on, making it “difficult to clearly see the full picture” of the budget and “almost impossible for individual council members to determine, as they’re making amendments, ‘Where can I take money, is this being double counted, how does this impact other fund balances, the levy exchanges, how we dip into the emergency funds, and so forth’.”

The budget office doesn’t see it this way. They say they have provided all the information the council has asked for—including not just specific line-item cuts but a list of cuts the mayor considered and rejected (scroll down)—and that the disagreement is actually more fundamental than a simple question of transparency. “We did not and were not intending to send down an entire new budget proposal,” budget director Ben Noble says, or relitigate the entire 2020 budget. But that, he argues, is exactly what the council is trying to do.

So why is this debate ultimately more illustrative than substantive? For one thing, a council that had a healthy relationship with the mayor could have communicated their confusion and need for more information behind the scenes, instead of having the director of Central Staff read a letter for the record; and a mayor who had a healthy relationship with the council could have figured out what information the council wanted and figure out a way to provide it, instead of sending down a dozen pieces of legislation that included gaps that were sure to frustrate a council primed to look for budget trickery.

The second reason this debate is largely symbolic is that the line items the council wants to add (and make up for by cutting from other parts of the budget) are—again, setting the police budget aside—relatively minor strictly from a spending perspective, and many of them will depend on departments (which answer to the mayor) agreeing to voluntarily start the hiring process this year for positions that have been frozen since March, at the risk of having to lay them off at the beginning of next year. Continue reading “Battle Over Budget Transparency Illustrates Deeper Rifts Between Seattle Mayor and Council”